part 1 historical background part 2 Custer and the 1875 Gold Rush part 3 the Battle
This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: West Mountain - Part 1
In the travel series View America, West Mountain - Part 1 covers Montana and Wyoming. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.
My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 150 full-sized photos.
At the age of thirty-three George Armstrong Custer was already a national hero. He graduated from the Military Academy in West Point, though he was last of his class, and in 1861 he entered the civil war as a second lieutenant. But within two years he managed to rise to the rank of brigadier-general! Talk about a rising star...
At the end of the war and at the age of 25 he was a major-general, with several military successes on his record as leader of the Third Cavalry Division. To the great public this was being presented as the result of his sharp intellect, his lack of fear in battle and his brilliant leadership. However, by his classmates and fellow officers Custer was depicted as "reckless, rude, arrogant, selfish, immoral and immature".
If one delves just a little deeper into the rather scarce documentation about his personality, it soon appears that he was a personal protégé of General Philip Sheridan, his superior in Fort Lincoln. After the war, many generals of the Northern Volunteer Armies were decommissioned, and it soon becomes clear how Custer's rather stellar career-climbing was made possible.
In the regular army he had just risen to the rank of captain, but outside of the normal cadre he retained the brevet of volunteer major-general in a personal capacity. Actually, outside of the normal cadre everything is possible to the influential, and nobody criticizes "peculiar" promotions...
The same "friendly hand above his head" made sure that in 1866, during an army reorganization, he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry Regiment. By mere coincidence he just "happened" to gallantly leap over the intermediate ranks of commander and major, and the same "coincidence" made sure that the regiment's own full-colonel accidentally happened to be "loaned out" to another regiment. In practice, "former captain" Custer was now suddenly in charge of a "full colonel" regiment!
His greatest "heroic" military feat during this period was the 1868 massacre of an unsuspecting former ally, the Oklahoma Cheyennes. On direct orders from General Sheridan he attacked a sleeping Indian village in early morning, and killed Chief Black Kettle and more than 100 Cheyenne men, women and children.
To make these matters even worse, the Cheyennes actually considered Custer as "family", since besides his legitimate (white) wife he also had a child with a Cheyenne squaw. During previous meetings with the Cheyennes, Yellow Hair Custer was taken in as a "brother", and had extensively promised that he would never take up arms against them. These oaths were sworn with the ritual of the Calumet or ceremonial Peace Pipe.
The government tried to buy the Black Hills from the Indians, but after the previous succession of broken treaties, deliveries of rotten food and infected supplies, and totally corrupt Indian Agency Officials, this was the last straw for the Indians. Sitting Bull categorically refused to sell anything anymore.
President Grant then officially decided to ignore the treaty violations and "not to stop" the prospectors anymore. Furthermore, in December 1875 he ordered that all Indians that were not in their reservations by 31 January 1876 were to be considered as "hostile", and ordered the army to remove them by force.
Now the winter in Montana is extremely harsh with temperatures down to minus 40°F (-40°C) and a 3 feet (1 m) thick snow carpet from late September until April. This fact throws a particular light on the order and the proposed date, for even if they had wanted to, the Indians could never make it to the reservations in time to avoid military interventions.
** Continue reading with part 3 **